Four of the committee members of the British Canyoneers arrived in the Ariege region of the Pyrenees at the start of September.
Three had a relaxing journey and even had time to enjoy an evening in the city of Toulouse. The fourth member, Phil Gudgin(BMC Liaison) arrived a day later and had a slightly more arduous journey, wrestling with the French public transport system.
“Not only did Isa provide us with food and wine but allowed us to commandeer her greenhouse to dry our gear and was always available to offer advice with a friendly smile. I can’t recommend gitamiglos.com enough"
Phil arrived just in time for a hearty meal provided by our host for the week, Isa, who owns several Gites in Miglos, a small mountain village just above Niaux. This proved to be an ideal base, we all had private rooms on a half board basis. The breakfast was a simple continental style breakfast with local honeys and jams along with a really good coffee. The evening meals were a simple 3 course meal, all freshly prepared and perfect at the end of a day’s canyoning. The meal started with Apperro-drinks in a quirky little bar by the pool and gave you the opportunity to meet the other guests, who we shared the dining table with as well.
Our dining companions changed daily, and every evening was different. The freely available red wine made communication easy no matter where the other guests came from.
Not only did Isa provide us with food and wine but allowed us to commandeer her greenhouse to dry our gear and was always available to offer advice with a friendly smile. I can’t recommend gitamiglos.com enough.
Day 1 - Canyon de l’Artigue - V3.A3.III
The group felt that this open canyon in the sun would good starting point. Good slides and jumps with a few relatively easy abseils. Arriving at the bottom, we geared up and hiked into the start in just over an hour. It’s at this point that you realise the difference in scale compared to the UK but what an amazing place to be. At the top we had simple lunch of baguettes with local cheese and charcuterie, along with small cup of red wine - French canyoning style, it all tastes better in those surroundings.
“Amzaing Canyon with stunning features, just dissapointing we weren't as efficient as we knew would could be.”
Starting in, it took a while to find our flow. Although aware it was a commercial canyon, we still checked pools before jumps and slides which eats into the planned journey time. The pools are deep, and the jumps are committing but we were happy to be starting our week of adventure.
As a team, at some of the pitch heads where we felt we were slow in both our decision making and rigging. Everything was safe, but we weren’t efficient! That was the only negative, it’s a beautiful canyon with grippy rock. Abrasion is minimal due to the geology and the positioning of bolts. The topo reckoned 3 hours. I reckoned 4 but it took us 5 by the time we were out with a mixture of emotions, we had run it safely but with nowhere near the efficiency that we knew we could do.
The other interesting factor was the high risk of thunderstorms at the start of our trip and about two thirds of the way down, the skies got really dark. This part of the canyon was the hardest to make an escape. In the end nothing happened but it was a sobering thought and a reminder of how vulnerable and exposed you can feel.
That evening we took time to reflect and talk about how we could improve, re-evaluated what we needed to take, as we were definitely carrying too much gear! Also, we had gone out with a rough itinerary but decided to change it for day 2 and do 2 smaller canyons where we could sharpen up.
Another great meal from Isa with a few glasses of red wine and we were ready for bed.
Day 2 - Thunderstorm
TThe day started about 02:00 with a very impressive thunderstorm. Awoken by a building shaking clap of thunder followed by a 2-hour light show illuminating the whole valley along with torrential rain. Back to sleep about 04:00 knowing that we were going to have to find something else to do that day. We met for breakfast about 08:00 to find that Phil Gudgin had slept soundly through the storm - good skills! We spent the morning down in the village practicing different rigging scenarios to try to ensure that the rest of the canyons would run how we wanted them to and by the end of the session confidence levels were back up.
Midday, we headed down to the Spa town of Ax-les-Thermes about 30 minutes away. Al fresco dining followed by a wander through a hunter’s market and finished off with a couple of hours in the Bains du Couloubret, a thermal spring complex. We were thoroughly relaxed and although we were there to go canyoning, this reminded us that it was also a holiday.
We headed back to Gitamiglos, sat in the sun and planned our next day, the 2 smaller canyons. Another pleasant evening, in bed for about 23:00 and looking forward to test if our practice and reflection would be effective.
No storms but Paul Lindop(Chair) and Phil Garden(Secretary) were up until about 04:30. That night, their accommodation overlooked a pre wedding party of 16 with good music and best of all, an early morning foosball tournament with associated clacking, Phil still has a tic if he hears anything similar. Yet again, Phil Gudgin slept the sleep of the just and was oblivious.
Day 3 - Canyon de l’Escales V3.A4.II & Canyon de Marc V3.A3.II
Breakfast at 08:00 with Phil Garden doing a great impression of a grumpy little bear from his 2 hours sleep. Quickly sorted gear and headed off sharp up the valley to above the village of Siguer.
A 20-minute steep climb through lush forest brought us to the top of the Canyon de l’Esacales with Paul a little disappointed that we hadn’t met any bears that had been reintroduced into the area.
Escales had a completely different feel, almost like a rainforest and the sunlight coming through the foliage gave it a surreal Tolkienesque vibe. All the canyons that we did in the Ariege region are well bolted, with several option for differing water levels. However, we still had to repair or build in extra redundancies at points, another good reminder of the basics, double check the anchors.
The water flow was good with some interesting features, the highlight being a 20m slide that kicks you up the sidewall. We also felt the benefit of our previous days practice as we moved through each obstacle with much more efficiency. In what felt like no time we were at the exit, feeling good.
The walkout was a little bit of an adventure, there were tiny blue markers to on indicate the trail but we lost these and the trail petered out and although we knew we were going the right way it was slightly more arduous than anticipated.
Back to the car, a quick lunch of baguettes with local cheese, sausage and the obligatory red wine, and straight onto the next canyon about half an hour away.
Canyon de Marc is the most commercial canyon in the area with a small walk in and loads of features. We mistimed slightly and entered with 2 guided trips, however with so many bolting options it wasn’t an issue. Marc is quite steep and deep with committing jumps and was definitely the coldest canyon we did. An easy abseil/jump at the top leads onto one of the main features, an exposed large abseil. To access river left you can cross a permanent Tyrolean wire which takes you to a clean high pitch. This was the route taken by the guided trips and was impressive watching the professional guides move their clients through. To avoid being held up we chose river right which required a rebelay onto an exposed hanging pitch head. We moved through pretty swiftly and started to really feel that we were working well as a team. We carried on down enjoying the comparative starkness of Marc and finished in the village. We now felt ready for the next day which we knew was going to be our biggest.
“The meeting of random travellers was an unexpected, but welcome aspect to the trip and definitely added to the experience.”
That evening we were later to bed than planned as we had a great company join us at the dinner table. A solo German cyclist working his way across the Alps and the Pyrenees and a couple who were there for one night. The conversation was easy, the wine flowed, even for Arnold, who had 100Km to cycle uphill the next day. It always impresses me how good the Europeans are at English and I do feel a little embarrassed at my rudimentary language skills. Luckily, we had Paul, who has lived in France and in our opinion, is pretty good at French. Our evening conversations were a mixture of English, French and Frenglish but it all worked. The meeting of random travellers was an unexpected but welcome aspect to the trip and definitely added to the experience.
Day 4. Canyon de Subra. V3.A2.III
Subra was our biggest planned day, with a steep walk in and in excess of 20 abseils. An hour uphill through alpine forest brought us to the entrance. Subra flows into Artigue, our first canyon but is a completely different experience. All abseils and down climbs, very moderate water but some abseiling in the flow. After a French brunch we entered the canyon and very quickly found our rhythm. We chose a system of one of us managing each pitch-being responsible for both rigging and derigging and moving rope forward to the next pitch. This is how we had wanted to feel on day one but better late than never. One of our observations up to this point had been how grippy the canyons had been, not Subra! Anywhere the water touched was like polished ice. As we slid our way down our progression through the different scenarios just got better. 2 hours in we stopped for refreshment and to reset our brains. It was getting steeper, and we knew we had to be on top form. It was just after we restarted that we had our only incident of the whole week. Phil Garden slipped and cracked his shin on a corner of rock, it was a sore one! A reminder that everything can change in an instant! Confident it wasn’t a fracture it was nonetheless debilitating with Phil barely able to weight bear, this changed everything. We were past the last escape point with the 2 most technical descents still ahead.
With this altered dynamic we started down, managing loads and Phil, and we’d lost a rigger. For me, weirdly, this was one of the highlights. I was struck by how well the team adjusted and dealt with each obstacle and the tenacity(enforced) of Phil to push on through. Now going more slowly we reached the main events the Cascade de la Seringue followed by the Cascade de la Cave. The ‘Seringue’, a pushy, slippy notch followed by the ‘Cave’, a full void abseil behind the waterfall. Both challenging when you’re not 100%. I think the ‘Cave’ was the highlight for the week, it embodied everything about why we enjoy canyoning, you couldn’t help but smile.
A few more simple drops and we were out with a feeling of being tested and we’d passed. Tired, we returned home, sorted gear and had one of the best Tartiflettes I’ve had, I think the endeavour added to the enjoyment. Definitely not a late one that night and I think we were all asleep as soon as our heads touched the pillow- a brilliant day.
Day 5/6 Foix and Canyon de l’Escales
This had always been a planned rest day with the intention of doing Canyon d’Estat V4.A3.III, one of the longest canyons in the region on the final day. However, very early on we were aware it was probably beyond our reach, a combination of group size and experience limiting us. It was definitely off the cards now we had an injury.
Phil was unsurprisingly pretty sore but mobile, so after a leisurely breakfast we went to be tourists. First stop Chateau de Miglos, a twelfth century castle just along from the village. Then we visited the ‘Grotto de Niaux’ a large cave system up above the village. However, we didn’t realise there were set tour times so only saw the entrance. Then we drove down to Foix, a medieval town and wandered the old streets, slowly, for Phil. A pleasant lunch and then back up to Gitamiglos to relax in the sun by the pool.
We then went through the option for the last day, proving that no plan can be set in stone. Estat was already off the cards. There had been a thought to redo Artuige but it was felt that with just 3 team members it was maybe a step too far.
The decision was to rerun Escales with maximum efficiency. We left sharp, with a fast ascent and were only slowed down by herd of cattle nonchalantly wandering down the path to new grazing. The calves not quite knowing what to make of the three neoprene clad men.
We entered the canyon, and it just ran smoothly. We knew what each of us needed to do and absolutely found our flow, and all of a sudden, we were at the bottom and our week was almost over.
The afternoon was spent drying kit, packing and hanging out ready for an early start the next day to return home.
“We all felt challenged but well within our capabilities and it was a proper adventure.”
I can safely say that the British Canyoners first international trip ticked all the boxes. Great canyons, weather, accommodation and food. We all felt challenged but well within our capabilities and it was a proper adventure. Excluding flights, the trip cost about £800 per person for accommodation, car hire, all food and drinks as well as excursions.
There is definitely a desire to return and tackle Canyon de l’Estat and for that we need a bigger team. The basic requirements are simply a good level of fitness and confident abseiling skills. The other challenge though, is there is a massive number of canyons just in Southern Europe, where else do we want to go?
Jason Sim Treasurer - British Canyoneers